Tingling down the back of your leg? Butt falling asleep when you sit too long? Shooting pain in your hip? If any of these sensations sound familiar you just might have a common condition known as Sciatica. If so, you are among approximately 40% of the population who feel it at some point and know how irritating it can be. But do you know why sciatica happens? Or better yet, what you can you do to relieve your sciatic pain? Let’s get into the basics of this common condition and then explore the sciatica stretches that can help.
What Is Sciatica?
Sciatica is pain, tingling or numbness that comes from the irritation of the sciatic nerve or the nerve roots that lead to the sciatic nerve. The pain can be severe, and it usually only occurs on one side of the body. In order to truly understand why sciatica occurs, you need a quick mini-course about this thing called the sciatic nerve. Here is just a brief overview that will help you understand.
Photo courtesy of Manhattan Pain & Sports Associates
You might not know it, but the sciatic nerve is the longest and largest nerve in the human body. It starts in your back and ends in your toes! This nerve actually begins as a collection of nerve fibers—or roots—in the lower spine. These fibers exit the spinal canal through a number of different openings in the lower spine. Eventually all of these little fibers meet up and combine to make one large sciatic nerve that can be as thick as a grown man’s thumb at its largest point.
As it begins to travel downward from your low back, the sciatic nerve runs below your piriformis muscle, through your hips and glutes, down the back of your leg, and into your foot. If you have sciatica, you may experience pain or numbness at any one or even all of these locations.
What Causes Sciatica?
If you have Sciatica, you may be wondering just how you’ve gotten this unfortunate pain in the first place. Now that you have an understanding of how large the sciatic nerve is, you can see that many things can trigger the condition. In general, sciatic nerve pain or irritation comes when something is pressing on the sciatic nerve. There are several things that can cause this, including:
- a ruptured or bulging disc
- damaged or broken vertebrae
- spinal stenosis (which narrows the spinal root canal)
- arthritis of the back
- bone spur on the spine
- pinched nerve or damage from injury
- inflammation in your piriformis muscle
Sciatica can also develop during pregnancy and in very rare cases a tumor pressing on the nerve can be the source of the pain. In general though, most cases of Sciatica will not require serious medical treatment and resolve themselves over time with proper self-care.
What Does Sciatica Feel Like?
Imagine you are sitting on a flight and about an hour into your trip your leg “falls asleep.” You stand up and try to shake it off, which works temporarily, but as soon as you sit back down it returns. That’s how it can feel to have Sciatica. Some people report numbness while others report a tingling sensation or outright shooting pain down the side or back of the leg. The discomfort can be felt in the buttocks on one side, down the side or back of the leg, or even in the ankle and foot. It is generally specific to only one side of the body.
How To Treat Sciatica
The good news is that for most people Sciatica is very temporary and with a bit of patience and persistence it can be taken care of without any invasive procedures. In fact, for some people it actually goes away on its own. If, however, you want to be a little more proactive, check out some of these things that have worked for others. Just keep in mind that everyone experiences this condition in their own way and what works for one person might not work for another. It may take a few different tries for you to get it right. If, however, your sciatica persists for more than 6-8 weeks, it is time to see a doctor about getting relief in some other way.
If applied at the first sign of symptoms, ice can reduce inflammation and numb some of the sore tissue. Heat can dilate the blood vessels, increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the area. A good plan is to alternate between hot and cold treatments when you first experience sciatic nerve pain.
Deep tissue massage with a skilled therapist can relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve and loosen up any tight spots. One good massage might do the trick, but likely a schedule or regular visits will make the real difference.
While massages can help, a chiropractor may also be a good bet. A chiropractor may be able to determine what the actual cause of the pain is and how to relieve pressure on the sciatic nerve. The best way to find a qualified chiropractor is by a referral.
Put your fear of needles on hold for just one second. A 2015 study by the National Institute of Health found that acupuncture can help treat sciatica. The NIH reports that “the use of acupuncture may more effectively relieve leg pain/lumbago and improve global assessment of sciatica when compared with NSAID treatment.”
Just as there are certain foods that can lead to chronic inflammation, other foods naturally fight it off. Since inflammation can play a role in sciatic nerve pain, it’s worth adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet! This may not completely solve the problem, but every small detail can add up to one big picture of feeling better.
Over The Counter Meds
If you’re really hurting and you need a temporary solution while you search for something more longterm, you can turn to some over-the-counter options. Non-sterodial anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs, such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen may relieve the inflammation that is causing your pain. Advil, Nuprin, Motrin or Aleve are the more common brands. Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, can also provide relief.
By far the best option to help your Sciatica is going to be stretching! My relief came through regular yoga which provided just the right stretches for my hips, lower back and piriformis to relieve the discomfort and help me feel good again. The key word in that sentence: REGULAR. You can’t stretch a few times, call it a day and expect any change to occur. For true help you will need to make regular stretching part of your routine.
Stretches To Help Relieve Sciatica
To help you get started, here are a few of the best Sciatica stretches to help relieve your pain and get you feeling great again. Perform these stretches a few times a week and really sink into each pose to get the most benefit. With any luck you’ll keep your sciatic nerve pain at bay and get back to feeling like your old self again.
Revolved Extended Side Angle (Crescent Twist)
Lying Spinal Twist
Seated Spinal Twist